Heritage Land

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‘Shalban Vihara is a crucial site as part of the Mainamati remnants in the Comilla district’

Bangladesh is renowned all over the world for its several Buddhist heritages. Many significant discoveries relating to Buddhism have been made in the country. The discoveries have added significantly to our knowledge of the history and chronology of ancient Bangladesh and various aspects of her Buddhist life and culture. Shalban Vihara in C0milla is one of these discoveries. An important heritage site in Bangladesh, Shalban Vihara is located about eight km west of Comilla town in the low hills named Mainamati-Lalmai range. This range is dotted with more than 50 ancient Buddhist settlements dating from 8-12 century AD.

About 1,200 years ago, King Bhava Deva, the fourth ruler of the early-Deva dynasty, built Shalban Vihara on 168 sq m of land. It was the royal palace for the early Buddhist students. This site, previously called Shalban Rajar Bari, was identified as a Buddhist monastery after archaeological excavations and later termed as Shalban Vihara from the terracotta seals and copper plates discovered here. Its original name is supposed to have been Bhava Deva Mahavihara after the 4th king of the early Deva dynasty who ruled this region from the mid-7th to mid-8th centuries AD. It was built near the outskirts of Devaparvata, the Samatata capital bordering the Lalambi forest.

Antiquities dug up from Mainamati ridge have established its value as a potential archaeological site. The copper plate inscription of Ranavankamalla Harikaladeva was discovered as early as 1803. In 1875, ruins of what was supposed to be a small brick fort were found in the Kotbari mound, along with some typical Mainamati terracotta plaques. It was, in fact, another monastery. Of the 13 copper plates recovered from Mainamati excavations, no less than eight were from Shalban Vihara, four from Charpatra Mura and one probably from Ananda Vihara. Of the nearly 400 coins found at Mainamati, about 350 were collected from Shalban Vihara which included a few gold coins of the Guptas, Devas and the Khadgas. There were also several bronze miniatures excavated from Shalban Vihara.

Any description of Mainamati will remain incomplete if the three marvels recently discovered were not described. These include two of metallurgical skill and one of stone sculpture. The stone sculpture is of a standing Buddha and discovered in the Rupban Mura excavations. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that this is the only sculpture approximating the classical Gupta Buddha image in Bangladesh, or for that matter, Bengal as a whole. The other two marvels are a bronze colossal Vajrasattva image discovered in the ruins of Bhoja Vihara in 1994, and a huge bell found at Rupban Kanya Mura. The 1.5m high sitting Vajrasattva is a wonder of bronze casting, probably dating to 10th -11th century AD.  There is another similar, though mutilated (only the head is preserved) bronze image, a large life-size bronze head of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, which has traces of gold plating on the polished surface. This was collected from the Bairagi Mura mound. A bronze bell weighing about half a ton can be dated back to the 10th -11th century AD.

The other two marvels are a bronze colossal Vajrasattva

image and a huge bell found at Rupban Kanya Mura

Though Paharpur has the largest number of stone sculptures and terracotta plaques found in Bangladesh, an astounding number of important inscriptions, coins and miniature bronzes have been hauled from Mainamati, unequalled to any site in Bengal or perhaps in the entire subcontinent. The inscriptions belong to no less than five dynasties (Guptas, Khadgas, Devas, Chandras, and later Devas), and in some cases, introduce us to new dynasties and kingdoms not known before, like the Devas. Altogether the discoveries from Mainamati – inscriptions and coins, sculptures and architecture – have changed the concept of the history of south-east Bengal between 6th and 13th centuries AD. The finds have illuminated not only its political history but also the area’s artistic, religious and economic histories.

In the case of the Shalban Vihara excavations, for instance, more than 300 coins – gold, silver (the most), and copper – testify to the use a regular currency. This has revolutionised our long-held idea of Bengal’s currency system, which was based for long on the absence of Pala and Sena coins. It now appears that at least the southeastern part of Bengal had a flourishing currency system, indicating a thriving economy. Also, the discovery of both the Pattikera and Harikela silver coins at Shalban Vihara has helped clarify our understating of both the coinages.

The ruins are inside the middle

of the Lalmai hills ridge

Every year many tourists from home and abroad visit Shalban Vihara. The  Department of Archaeology has established a museum near the site where they have displayed the relics found in and around the Shalban Vihara. The government of Bangladesh has taken the initiative to mark the Shalban Vihara as a World Heritage Site.

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